Pedals for Live Acoustic Guitar Performance

Table of Contents

Times are different now for the acoustic guitar player. In the past, we had to look at our electric-playing brethren and see the mounds of shiny pedals at their feet, while we had to content ourselves with a cable straight into a DI. However, I say “no more” (as well as many others). These days, it’s not uncommon to see acoustic players with sophisticated pedal setups conjure an array of tones and fun.

There are several pedals that cater to the acoustic guitar player, from simple to sophisticated. We will look at the types of pedals there are and offer some suggestions on what to get.

To make this simple, we will go in order of signal flow, from the guitar output jack to PA/amplifier input

Tuner pedal

Ok, not as sexy as some other pedals on this list, but so essential for any guitar player. While you can get away with using a clip-on tuner (and please DO NOT rely on onboard preamp tuners on your acoustic guitar – they’re ok, but accuracy can be very if-y), the pedal tuner offers some advantages. For one, most of them mute your signal, which comes in really handy if you need to unplug. The other is an onboard buffer, which can help keep your signal as hot as possible through several other pedals. Some of the best picks for tuners include the Boss TU-3, or the TC Electronic Polytune (some of which have switches to go from buffered bypass to true bypass, if you wish one over the other).

Octave pedal

We need to talk about the Boss OC-3 pedal, which has found itself on many acoustic guitar players’ pedalboards. Not only does it offer one and two-octave sounds, but the polyphonic mode is also where it really shines. This allows you to dial in what notes on the guitar will trigger the octave effect, meaning that you can add bass notes to your lower strings while keeping the higher strings intact. There are others that can do the lower octave thing across all strings, but this one is the special one. Grab one if you can!

Compressor pedal

A handy pedal if you wish to keep your signal nice and even, especially if you play more fingerstyle. A compressor pedal simply helps keep dynamics in check, boosting quieter notes and keeping very loud notes at a reasonable volume. Many compressors now include blend controls to let you return uncompressed tone to your signal for more dynamics and attack. As far as models go, you really can’t go wrong with any offerings by Keeley Electronics (such as the Keeley Compressor, or their Compressor Pro), the Ego Boost from Wampler, or Fender’s The Bends pedal.

Distortion/Overdrive pedal

OK, wait? Distortion on an acoustic guitar?! Well, why not? In the past, plugging in a distortion pedal into an acoustic brought a world of trouble (hello, feedback!) Today, distortion and overdrive pedals are now being made specifically for acoustic guitars, including Fender’s The Smoulder overdrive. Even regular distortion and overdrive pedals can do the trick, however, take the time to learn how to properly tweak them for maximum effect and minimal howling.

Boost pedal

Not the same as overdrive or distortion, boost just takes your signal and makes it louder. This is ideal for soloing in a band context to help you stick out in the mix. What you want to look for is a clean boost that doesn’t add any extra distortion to the signal. Ideal picks would be the TC Electronic Spark Mini or the BBE Boosta Grande; extra volume with no coloration.

Pre-amp/DI pedal

Since most acoustic guitarists don’t necessarily use an amplifier, these types of pedals provide certain tone-shaping advantages that amplifiers have before hitting the mixing desk. Many of the pedals will incorporate some sort of EQ option to help shape your sound, as well as an XLR output that will allow you to connect your guitar to the mixing desk (more on this a little later as well). Many offerings from companies such as LR Baggs (the Venue DI pedal) and Fishman (the Platinum Pro EQ/DI) offer other features such as compression, integrated boost, tuner, effects loops, feedback control, etc. negating the need for certain other pedals on this list. Ideally, you could do a whole gig with just one of these and your guitar, and have the essentials covered. The effects loop is also handy to integrate the next few pedals on this list so that everything goes to the DI since you may not be able to continue in-line connections with one of these.

Modulation pedal

This is really something that is to taste for each player. These effects include flanger, chorus, phaser, tremolo, etc. These are really to add spice and variety to your sound. This is where you need to experiment to find the one(s) you like, and there are several offerings from companies such as TC Electronic, Boss, and others. Can’t decide? Consider the Eventide H9 or H90, or the Boss MD-200 or the Strymon Mobius, all of which offer several modulation effects in one pedal (mind you, at a premium).

Delay pedal

Sweet, sweet repeats! Delay creates the echo effect where your playing is repeated (kinda like yelling into the grand canyon) at a set time interval. Several different types of delay exist, from tape delay to analog delay, to digital delay, to affected delays (with octaves and shimmer). All of them can find a spot on your acoustic guitar pedal board, but it’s likely best to look for a quality delay that can cover several bases. TC Electronic has several offerings in their Flashback line of pedals, or the Strymon Timeline, that offer many types of delay in one pedal. If you’re a fan of just one type, Strymon or Boss’s compact pedals also have several offerings specializing in one type of delay. LR Baggs also offers an acoustic-tailored delay pedal in their Align series.

Reverb pedal

Like delay, reverb is an echo effect, only instead of yelling into the grand canyon, it’s like yelling in a warehouse (that giant room echo). Reverb is probably essential for those who plug in directly (such as acoustic guitar players), taking that dry DI sound and making it sound more like it’s in a room (either a small room or a big chamber, depending on the settings). LR Baggs makes an acoustic-specific reverb in their Align series; however, there are several offerings from companies like TC Electronic, Strymon and Boss that we get you single reverbs (if you have just one you want to use), or multi-reverb offerings, for those who need it all!

Looper pedal

If you’re a solo acoustic guitar player who wants to amp up their live show, or you just want something to play over while you practice, you can’t go wrong with a looper pedal. If you need any more reason to get one, just look up any live video of Ed Sheeran entertaining a stadium full of people with just his guitar and a looper pedal. These would definitely need to be placed after all your effects so that any loop that needs them has them, then you can shut off certain ones for playing the next part. Loopers range in price and sophistication, depending on what you want to do. Single-track loopers from Boss (the loop station pedals) and TC Electronic (the Ditto pedals) are a good place to start, and can go into multitrack situations, such as Boss’s large Loop Station RC-300, or the Headrush Looperboard.

A Direct Input (DI) box

Probably essential here (if there is nothing else on this list that you get). Most mixing desks are not necessarily equipped with instrument inputs (and no, the line level is not the same). What a DI box does is take your guitar’s unbalanced, low-impedance signal and convert it to a balanced, high-impedance signal that the mixing console needs. The Preamp Pedals from Fishman and LR Baggs mentioned above are equipped with DI outputs, so those can be plugged directly into the mixer for live shows. However, if you don’t have one, various models from companies such as Radial (pretty much an industry standard) and Countryman can get what you need for the budget you have.

So, here’s a rundown of some great pedal types to enhance your live acoustic guitar sound. You don’t need them all, but some are essential. The best way to go about it would be to decide what you need overall and look for pedals that get you there. The hunt is half the fun!

Notice about using Guitar2Tabs with pedals

Guitar2Tabs works best when a clean audio signal is input. We recommend splitting the signal after the tuner and direct the clean signal into your audio interface in a separate channel, too. This also comes in handy, when mixing your recording because you can adjust the dry wet ratio afterward.

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